Orthodoxy and Peace

by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

"In peace, let us pray to the Lord." This prayer opens the Orthodox Eucharistic assembly. It follows one which invokes the Spirit: "You who are everywhere, fulfilling everything." The prayer for peace, for the highest messianic gift, the fullness of life, a foretaste of the Kingdom of God which comes and which is already here in Jesus Christ, is at the heart of Orthodox prayer. Christ is celebrated as the "prince of peace" (Is 9:6), as "the rising star come from on High towards people who are in the shadows and the darkness of death to guide our feet along the path of peace." (Lk 1:79)

The Great Litany at the beginning of the eucharistic liturgy, gathers all the intentions of this prayer: "For peace from on high and the salvation of our souls, for peace throughout the world, for the well-being of the holy Churches and the union of all ... for the clergy and all the faithful ... for the sick, the prisoners, for all those who are suffering ... for peaceful times and abundance of the fruits upon the earth, let us pray to the Lord."

It is a prayer for reconciliation of humanity with God, of every person with their neighbor, divine peace reaching out to the whole cosmos, to our relation with the earth that we are called to cultivate and which in turn provides us with our food.

Greeting his disciples, the resurrected Christ proclaims: "Peace be with you." In the same way, the Orthodox priest, at the most solemn moments of the liturgy, addresses the faithful, proclaiming: "Peace be with you all." As the exchange of the kiss of peace by the celebrants signifies, it is only in a spirit of peace and mutual love that it is possible to confess the common faith and to draw near, "without judgement and condemnation," to the mystery of communion in the body given and the blood spilt by Christ for all people. The Eucharist is "a mystery of peace," emphasized Saint John Chrysostom.

The great mystical prayer movement, which through the centuries, has never ceased to vitalize Orthodox piety, carries the name "hesychasm." "Hesycha" means in Greek, "rest, tranquillity." Of course it is not a matter of a mere tranquility of the spirit, of hardening the heart, of spiritual sleep. The hesychast, in the assured abandon of faith, in Christ whose name, joined to the breath, is in some way "breathed" unendingly, thereby strengthening the communion in him to God united in Three Persons. Trinitarian love is the source, the paradigm of all human peace and communion. Far from encouraging lazy quietism, Orthodox mysticism calls one to spiritual combat: struggle, in the mysterious synergy of divine grace and human will which becomes aware of itself, in the face of selfish urges, and "passions" which can destroy interior peace and peace in the world. The peace received from God can shine on the world through men and women who have experienced prolonged self-discipline or an enlightening event, living out peace and reconciliation. "Acquire peace and thousands around you will be saved," taught by the great Russian mystic Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833). Originally the monks' movement, hesychasm and "the prayer of the heart" associated with it experienced a significant diffusion amongst the Orthodox laity as the famous The Way of the Pilgrim testifies.

Nevertheless, different questions are raised: the priority given to interior pacification, does not that lead to the temptation of a certain dualism? Does it not serve as an excuse to resigned acceptance of, indeed compliance, with so-called "exterior" violence: the inevitable catch, existence in a world to which the Christian declares himself a stranger but to whose laws, hypocritically or cowardly, he submits himself? The historical Orthodox Churches, along with other Churches, have blessed armies that go to war. The deep links that have been forged between them and nations, in which the Churches have sometimes played the role of midwife to the nations, enriching their culture, do these links not tend to degenerate into nationalism tinted with religiosity which justify warring conflicts? Orthodox believers must examine their own consciences at this point. An honest, historical enquiry could be a useful tool, as the perceptive theologian and historian Father John Meyendorff has written. A simple allusion will have to suffice here.

The Orthodox Church has not worked out a theory or ideology of the "just war" Orthodox "holy war" and has abstained from preaching in support of crusades. She maintains her place in the continuity of the Church of the first centuries, which opposed her violent persecutors by means of the powerful gentleness of the martyrs. In the beatitudes sung at each Sunday Liturgy, she proclaims: "Happy are the mild of heart, for they shall inherit the earth," namely the eschatological kingdom. Nevertheless, seen in a historical context, the Church (which lives on through the Orthodox Church) finished by admitting that war, in certain circumstances, could constitute a lesser evil. She no longer condemned carrying weapons to be incompatible with the Christian faith.

A marked turning point was reached in the Constantinian era with the institution not of caesarian-papism (of which the Church of Byzantium was wrongly accused) but with the arrival of the idea or the utopia of the "Christian empire," the empire seen as the temporal home of the Church, called to protect and defend the "real faith." The emperors saw this cementing of the unity of a State as a multicultural act. The teaching of Orthodox faith belongs to the Church. The state, whose legitimacy the Church admits, believes it has to impose it by a coercion which, alas, she sometimes invokes: a fatal error, largely responsible -- as is recognized nowadays -- for the disastrous schism which separated the imperial Church from the ancient, eastern, non-chalcedonian Churches, wrongly called on one hand "nestorians" and on the other "monophysites."

Born out of the missionary growth of the Church of Byzantium, the new Christians, who settled in the Balkans and at the eastern confines of Europe at the dawning of the Middle Ages, inherited the idea and thinking from the Christian Empire, adapting it to new and different historical contexts.

The formation of the Russian state, first Kievan then Muscovite, bears the mark of this influence. In the thirteenth century, Kievan Orthodox Russ suffered devastating raids by heathen or islamized people of the steppes in the east and south while there was growing pressure in the West from the Teutonic knights (missionaries armed with Latin Catholicism). The Church, protector of nations, was seen as guarding the unity of the Russian people. In the following century, Saint Sergius of Radonezh, a great monk from Northern Russia, urged the rival Russian princes to gather outside Moscow in order to chase the Tartars. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the myth of "Moscow, the third Rome" was born and spread through Russian monastic communities. At first with a hint of apocalyptism, it developed into the idea of Russia's vocation as a great imperial power, if not imperialistic.

In the eighteenth century, the reforms of Peter the Great transformed the now headless Russian church -- she no longer had a patriarch -- into an imperial administrative department. However, paradoxically, the secularized Russian state set itself up as protector, first of all to Orthodox subjects in the Ottoman Empire, then to "Orthodox" states born out of the dislocation of this empire, a pretension which justified many wars. Again in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II, with great hesitation, believed himself obliged to declare war on Catholic Austrian-Hungary which was threatening Orthodox Serbia. However, at the very interior of the Russian Church, an evangelical current, personalist, universalist and mystical -- a current which was persecuted by the official Church and therefore often underground -- did not cease rising up against the conscription of the Church by the State. It is represented in the fifteenth century by St. Nil Sorski, promoter of Russian hesychasm, whose disciples refused to associate themselves with the hunting down of heretics called "Jews"; by St. Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow, assassinated at the order of Ivan the Terrible for daring to protest; later by the daring "fools of Christ" from the sixteenth and seventeenth century that an English traveler compares to the "lampoonists" in his own country. Although officially condemned, Tolstoyism perhaps constituted one of the manifestations of this evangelical protest, a concept which is also expressed by a humble monk, the Archimandrite Spiridon, author of My Missions in Siberia.

Deep links between Balkan peoples -- Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Rumanians -- and the Orthodox Church have become knotted up during a long and tragic history. After the fall of Constantinople, after the disappearance of the short-lived Serbian and Bulgarian kingdoms and the battles lost, like that of Kosovo whose mythical memory the Serbs preserve, these people lived for centuries under Ottoman domination, sometimes Austro-Hungarian. It is the Church that, through the Christian faith transmitted essentially by the liturgy celebrated in a tongue close to the vernacular, allowed them to preserve their essence and their popular culture. Orthodoxy was not, however, a permanent foyer of insurrection during this period. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, on whom the local Orthodox Churches depended canonically, put up with the regime which was both protective and restrictive of the "milet" given by Islam to the "Christian people" whose patriarch became the head of both civil and religious affairs. It is only at the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, that Orthodoxy truly becomes, according to the expression of Olivier Clment, "the fertile product of the nations' development" in the Balkans. This occurred, partly, under the influence of ideas originating in the West: from the French revolution and from German romanticism. It was an Orthodox prelate, Archbishop of Patras, who, raising the standard of revolt, called the Greeks to combat "for faith and the fatherland" in 1821. From the victorious insurrection came forth both modern Greece and the autocephalous Church of Greece. In the last century, other Balkan races reached the same independence by similar means, not without intervention by foreign powers. This independence was crowned by obtaining the sometimes difficult autonomy of their "national" Churches. The Patriarchate of Constantinople obtained the censure of phyletism from the assembly of Orthodox Churches called to Council in 1872. Phyletism, literally love of the tribe, was condemned as an "introduction of national rivalries within the Church of Christ."

It still exists today, after two world wars which have created more victims in traditionally Orthodox countries of Eastern and southeastern Europe than elsewhere, after decades of atheist, communist regimes aimed at cutting the ties between people, the nation, and the Church. Consequently the Orthodox Church has undergone a geographical fragmentation following various political cataclysms. In light of these events, what is the attitude of the Orthodox Churches confronting efforts to promote international peace? It must be recognized that the picture is a contrasting one. I must content myself with summary information.

Primus inter bares, first among equals, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, as the title indicates, has a supranational vocation and appears agreeable to peace initiatives, whether from the Vatican or the World Council of Churches. (He has only a small number of faithful in Turkey itself, where even the existence of the Patriarchate is under threat.) This attitude was found among the ancient Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, whose role was important within the Council of Christian Churches in the Middle East, as well as in the context of Islamic-Christian dialogue. Prompted by Arab solidarity, these Churches appear more reserved with regard to the state of Israel.

The Church of Greece, on the other hand, feels called to defend Christian hellenism against an Islam which asserts itself in Turkey and also in Cyprus and, it thinks, in the Balkans.

The great and tumultuous Russian Church is crossed by conflicting currents, some characterized by a national identity withdrawal, others open to the positive values of the West: democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights. The Patriarch of Moscow, Alexis II, himself remains well anchored in the World Council of Churches, participating through such representatives as the Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk in the movement "for Peace, Justice and the Integrity of Creation." Patriarch Alexis has condemned the war in Chechnya.

Among the dispersed Orthodox communities, some remain very attached to the national churches from where they came and are therefore threatened, on the lookout for nationalist reactions. But others in Europe and America, are integrated into Western culture. Enriched by the thought of the great theologians from the Russian emigration, the Orthodox diaspora has been the place in the twentieth century for a powerful awareness of the spiritual catholic heritage of the Orthodox Church, in the sense of symphonic universality. This movement is nowadays taken over by Orthodox theologians of differing ethnic origins who, by a creative return to sources, to Scripture and the Fathers, aspire to the liberation of national Orthodoxies.

One of the greatest contemporary Orthodox theologians, Archimandrite Lev Gillet (better known under the pseudonym "a monk of the Eastern Church" with which he signed his books), was a pioneer of ecumenical dialogue, Judeo-Christian dialogue together with inter-religious dialogue. His reflections and prophetic messages play a growing role within Orthodoxy.

We cannot talk about Orthodoxy in relation to the ideal of peace between nations, Church and State, without calling to mind the tragedy of ex-Yugoslavia. In their judgement of this disastrous conflict, the western media and intellectuals are often proof of the ignorance of the complex and sorrowful history of the people concerned. It would not be a matter of justifying the horrors committed by some Serbs today in the name of the suffering inflicted on the Serbian people in the past -- the genocide committed by the Croat Ustashis, and before that the tyrannous demands of the Ottoman period. But it would seem rash to ask the Serbs simply to forget. As Mara Dropovitch has written, true reconciliation will be the fruit, not of a forgotten past, but of its incorporation in a spirit of penitence and mutual forgiveness. All Churches can and should contribute to this difficult process of purification of the memory. The Serbian Orthodox Church today appears ready to follow this route. It has broken the solidarity not with its people that are also suffering, but with the ambiguous politics of Milosevi.

"Evil and hatred create only new evil and hatred," Patriarch Pavle declared last May. "If this war proceeds, the only victors will be the devil and evil, not peoples and nations."

An Orthodox peace movement, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, has been born in recent years and is gradually becoming more active. It has members in Serbia as in many other countries.

May the God of peace defeat the powers of darkness and division.

Elisabeth Behr-Sigel is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Her books include The Ministry of Women in the Church (Oakwood Publications, 1991). Publication of an English translation of her biography of Archimandrite Lev Gillet is expected in 1996. She lives in Paris. This essay, in a slightly different form, was first published by Rforme. The translation is by Rachel Mortimer of Logos Communications, Northampton, England. The text was published in issue 3 of In Communion (Nativity Fast 1995).