The troublesome word “murder”

On several occasions in recent months the Orthodox Peace Fellowship has been criticized for using the word "murder" in the statement it issued last January opposing the Iraq War. Here is the section of the text that gave rise to this debate:

"...Because we seek the reconciliation of enemies, a conversion which grows from striving to be faithful to the Gospel, the Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good, and fighting an elusive enemy by means which cause the death of innocent people can be regarded only as murder. Individual murderers are treated by psychiatrists and priests and isolated from society. But who heals the national psyche, the wounded soul of a nation, when it is untroubled by the slaughter of non-combatant civilians?..."

The full text of the OPF Iraq Appeal plus some of the criticisms are posted on the OPF web site.

Here are some of the recent postings to the OPF List (an e-mail discussion forum for OPF members) about this topic:

The reality of taking life

At first I was made uncomfortable, too, by the use of the word "murder" in the OPF statement. After all, these soldiers are good guys, they're operating from pure, patriotic motives, and this is what soldiers do.

But that's not the way the Church thinks. The Church always thinks in terms of individuals, and in terms of the individual immortal soul, and the eternal life and salvation of that soul. If a soldier kills in battle, he has this on his conscience. He will bring it home with him, and it will stay with him for the rest of his life. In the darkest hours of the night it will haunt him. After all the patriotic parades and speeches and fanfare are over, the individual soldier will be stuck with this fact forever. And the Church doesn't care about patriotic feelings. The Church cares about what that soldier did and how to heal his soul. The Church cannot obfuscate here. It cannot say, it's not murder, it's not killing, what you did was something else, you did it for your country. Because the soldier, in his heart, has a prior fear. And he needs the Church to name the sin and heal him. This is hard, and it sounds harsh. But you cannot heal a disease if you dare not name it.

The same is true, by the way, of the executioner. Or of the woman who has an abortion. All these people are involved in some very personal way in the taking of life, and all of them carry this truth with them. They need something like the Church, something that is beyond all earthly allegiances, which come and go. They need the healing of Christ.

Nancy Forest

Does the word "murder" say too little?

With Newton, I feel like a child gazing with wonder at an ocean of truth. If life is sacred, what does it means to kill a child? Or a civilian? If "murder" means people with deliberate intent, our critics are right to contend that our use of "murder" in the OPF's Iraq Appeal was too strong. But we know Christ lives in the least person. If each person is created according to the image and likeness of God, and our Lord tells us that anything we do to the least, we do to Him, may the word "murder" say too little?

Are we not, as people who venerate icons, heirs to a theology whose beauty and depth we may never exhaust? Is "Christ in our midst" not only in our liturgy, but in our enemies?

On the last Sunday of Orthodoxy I watched children carry icons to celebrate the victory over iconoclasm. Suddenly I saw not single icons, but pairs: one wooden, one living. At that moment, as we set about to kill living icons in Iraq, I dared to wonder, "Who are the real iconoclasts? Ancients who destroyed wooden icons? We who kill living ones? All of us together? Is a living icon less sacred than a wooden one?"

War, like abortion, dehumanizes brothers and sisters. Some days ago a priest kindly gave me an article in the National Review, "Ministers of War," in which a chaplain explains that "to prepare soldiers to ... kill [the enemy], ... they must believe ... they are not personally connected with [them], but are acting solely as disinterested agents of the state." I was as mesmerized as when seeing children as icons, but this time by horror. I thought of the saying of one the Desert Fathers: "I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to see all humanity as one."

In this age of ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction, has recognition of the mystery of the sacred character of life ever been so urgently needed? Has it ever been so clear that W.H. Auden was right to say our choices are to love one another or die? Can a faith that sees the icon of Christ in every person and in all creation open our eyes to see enemies in a transforming way?

John W. Oliver

A loaded word

Even secular international law recognizes individual responsibility. The defense "I was just following orders" has been consistently rejected, most notably at the Nuernberg Trials following the Second World War. It hurts just to write those three words....

Soldiers “ along with everyone else “ who kill people, whether non-combatants or "enemy" soldiers (no one is truly "innocent") are indeed morally accountable for the lives they take. The sin of murder may be explainable, but not excusable, and the only remedy for it is repentance “ which can't happen unless the sin is acknowledged.

I'd be the first to admit that "murder," as used in our Plea for Peace in Iraq is a harsh, loaded, troublesome word; I should know: I wrote it. I pray that God's Holy Spirit was working through me then, and that it wasn't merely my own poor attempts to serve Him which generated that sentence.

Given the great discomfort, even confusion, which people have expressed concerning the word "murder" in that context, I've wondered if it might have been better to express the concept more tactfully, but the conversations ensuing the "Plea" have been helpful and productive, clarifying ideas and causing people to take some moral inventory of themselves, their consciences and attitudes. It's probably better, on balance, that murder was called murder; the civil law's concepts of inculpable "manslaughter" or "justifiable homicide" don't exist in the Gospel or in the larger Christian Tradition.

This has repercussions even in (mostly) non-religious areas such as medicine, particularly psychology/psychiatry, and sociology. People who kill other people, even at the behest of legitimate civil authorities, are personally responsible for their actions. Despite efforts of civil authorities to dull, if not eliminate, the consciences of military men, many soldiers who have had to kill people are haunted for years by nightmares, not always while asleep, about the atrocities they felt forced to commit. Priests and psychiatrists attempt to help them, but healing depends, to a very large extent, on each individual's acknowledgment of his sin/guilt.

This sort of healing isn't available to a nation or state. Only individuals are moral agents, and states are composed of individuals who must make moral judgements. It isn't possible for us to make moral judgements and then expect that "the government," rather than ourselves as individuals, will be held accountable at the awesome tribunal of Christ.

In the specific matter of an executioner's acting for the state, there was a discussion not long ago among a group of priests, one of whom had (apparently seriously) asked advice: what can he tell his conflicted parishioner who is employed as an executioner in his state?

Naturally, there were a certain number of responses suggesting that, since that state has a legal structure which allows capital punishment under certain conditions, there is no personal moral issue at stake. Those who thought this way were mistaken, and were corrected by others who pointed out that there are canonical penalties imposed for even the unintentional taking of human life; a fortiori, intentional killing is to be more severely punished and more profoundly repented.

So, for instance, a priest who even accidentally kills someone is ipso facto deprived of his priesthood. A layman who even accidentally kills someone may not be ordained. Anyone who takes a human life is excommunicated for various stated periods, depending on the circumstances “ but always excommunicated.

An executioner would be excommunicated by the very act of doing his job. He could be reinstated in the Church and restored to communion after ten years or so, as St. Basil seems to suggest. But if he killed someone else during the period of his excommunication, that would require additional canonical discipline, not to mention that the executioner's repentance would seem at least a little insincere. Given the parameters, an executioner could never be restored to communion; his occupation is completely at odds with the Gospel.

Monk James Silver

Objective act, subjective state

I may be wrong, but I think a fundamental distinction has been missed in the discussion of whether the term murderer ought to be applied to a soldier who fights in a war in which non-combatants are either directly or indirectly are killed. The distinction is between an objective act and the subjective state of the actor. A person's culpability depends on whether he knows (or should know) that what he is doing is participating directly or indirectly in murder and whether he or she freely chooses to do so. In the case of a specific soldier involved in war, we are not in the position of knowing his subjective state, so we can't judge him a murderer. Indeed I would suggest that military training, as well as the propaganda of national policy, tends to make soldiers (and many civilians) think that this war is a patriotic duty to stop terrorism and to rid the world of a brutal dictator. This should not stop us from stating that objectively the killing of non-combatants in Iraq is murder and so try to transform his and other American soldiers' (and civilians') malformed consciences.

Dr. Al Raboteau

In knowledge or in ignorance

We might decide that "murder" was a poor choice because people who hear it will think in the legal terms with which they're familiar. But this whole discussion has reminded me of something that struck me when I was preparing to be received into the Church: that, in Orthodoxy, sin is seen as objective. That is, a sinful act is sinful regardless of intent. Thus we often pray for forgiveness of sins committed in knowledge or in ignorance. If I commit a sin ignorantly, perhaps thinking it's not a sin at all, and later come to a better realization, I'm still called upon to repent, not just to say that it wasn't a sin because I didn't know it was.

John Brady

Right word at the right moment

I find the use of the word "murder" in the OPF statement entirely appropriate. Although the Church has not traditionally identified the killing of enemy combatants in war as murder, killing in war becomes murder when the line between combatants and non-combatants is blurred, when the killing of civilians is regarded as an acceptable threshold for the accomplishment of the "mission." (In Iraq, The United States violated international law by dropping cluster bombs in populated areas, "acting with deliberate disregard for human life." This is one of the legal and canonical definitions of murder.)

Canon XIII of St. Basil, which contains an exemption clause for soldiers engaged in warfare, was written with a defensive war against enemy invaders in mind, and a kind of warfare in which one actually saw the enemy one was fighting. He could not have imagined munitions that would travel miles to indiscriminately destroy soldiers and civilians, men and women, adults and children, killing hundreds (or even thousands) of people in a single blast. The new reality of warfare requires a corresponding adjustment in the Church's approach to war. When Basil thought of war, he thought of swords and arrows. He could not have imagined napalm falling from the sky in great swaths and burning up entire villages. He could not have imagined what a 500-pound bomb falling into a busy marketplace would do. He could not have imagined Hiroshima.

In such cases, the distinction between war and murder is simply no longer meaningful.

The OPF statement was and is prophetic in its clear recognition of the fact that, behind the curtain of sanitized language and cleansed photo-ops, munitions-based warfare is predicated upon a "margin of error" approach that regards the killing of large numbers of civilians as acceptable. This is a horrific cheapening of human life that must be squarely addressed. It is estimated that between 7,500 and 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war. And that number rises daily.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

From the Winter 2004/Theophany issue of In Communion, the yearly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The text is copyrighted by the author and should not be published or reproduced on another web site without the author's written permission.