Christ admonishing Peter:

Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence

Ecumenical Review / March 2011

by Fr. Philip LeMasters

Christ admonishing Peter: "Put away your sword, for they who live by the sword will perish by the sword."

Christ admonishing Peter: "Put away your sword, for they who live by the sword will perish by the sword."

As an American convert to Orthodoxy, I am well aware that this dimension of the life of the Eastern Church is obscure. Outside of traditionally Orthodox nations and cultures, even most well-educated people have never heard or seen a public statement or act by the church (or her members) that demonstrates a commitment to peace or a distinctive stance on any public issue.2 The Orthodox community is a small minority outside of its traditional locations and, especially in such contexts, focuses more on the practical demands of sustaining diocesan and parish life than on public statements or acts of prophetic witness.

Traditionally Orthodox nations offer a wide variety of models of interaction between the church and public affairs. Greek, Russian and Serbian national identity, for example, are closely tied to Orthodoxy. It is not surprising in such contexts to encounter prayers for the blessing of weapons, military regiments with patron saints, and other practices that endorse participation in warfare. In majority Muslim nations, the Orthodox have had a range of historical experiences, including exclusion from military service, mandatory conscription and the possibility of pursuing a successful military career. In none of these examples, however, do the Orthodox appear to provide a distinctive vision of the moral and spiritual matters at stake in the use of violence, much less to make a bold witness for peace in the public realm.

There is no question that early Christianity was characterized far more strongly by practices of nonviolence and reconciliation than by those of bloodshed and warfare. With the conversion of Constantine and the gradual “Christianization” of the Empire, however, the dynamics of sustaining a suitable peace in the world took priority over a straightforward witness to the non-resistant love of Christ. Canon law, however, required – and continues to require – clergy and monastics to embody nonviolence. Their example is a sign to the church of the paradigmatic practice of turning the other cheek. The dominant experience of Orthodoxy is within empires and nations where the church had a definite and subservient relationship with the ruling political powers. Hence, it is not surprising that the church has tolerated war as a broken, tragic necessity of collective life in the world.3

Orthodox canon law has maintained, however, the recognition of the spiritual gravity of taking life in war. St Basil the Great recommended that those who kill in war should abstain from taking communion for three years. Soldiers were not sanctioned with nearly the same severity as murderers, but were given time to repair the damage done to their souls by killing through a period of repentance before communing. This canon may never have been applied strictly, and clearly has often been ignored in the practice of the church. Still, it stands as a reminder that war is not unambiguously good; the taking of the life of a fellow human being is a grave matter that threatens to impair one's relationship with the Lord, the church and one's neighbours.4

Past and current experience with the psychological and moral damage done by participation in warfare reveals the wisdom of St Basil's canon. It is often a great struggle to heal from war's traumatic effects. The author of a recent letter to the editor of the newspaper of my city makes this point: “I kept remembering the 300,000 old men and women and young pregnant mothers and children wild-eyed with fear who were killed when we firebombed Tokyo, and then there was what we did at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And I loaded the fuses for those bombs and have lain awake in the night wondering if there is forgiveness.”5 After 65 years, the wounds of war apparently still trouble the author of that letter. The sinfulness of bloodshed may manifest itself through a lifetime of guilt and sleepless nights. This man's words witness to the wisdom of directing those who kill to pursue healing through the spiritual therapy of repentance.

In contrast with Western Christianity, there is no explicit just war theory in Eastern Orthodoxy. Certainly, the Byzantine Empire and other Orthodox nations have had rules of conduct for soldiers and expectations about when and how it was appropriate for nations to go to war. But even observance of the strictest moral or professional code does not make war good. Not only is participation in warfare often a spiritually and emotionally shattering experience for soldiers, it is inevitably tied to abuse and injustice. Ethnic cleansing, rape, oppression of religious minorities, abuse of prisoners and refugees, and other horrors often arise in the chaos of warfare. As Fr John McGuckin notes, war “remains what it has always been, one of the curses of the human race, dragging after it … death, orphans, widows, disease, destruction of the environment and cities, rape, forced prostitution, and all manner of human wickedness and misery.” Even wars fought in the name of justice “have led to many instances of the just finally acting as badly as the wicked, and losing sight of their goal”.6

That war is inevitably tragic and corrupt is apparent from a sober reading of the application of just war theory. National self-interest and a desire for dominion have corrupted every known instance of warfare. Political and military leaders routinely take actions that they know will result in the deaths of noncombatants. These leaders usually also control the very information necessary to evaluate the morality of their own actions in war. True transparency and accountability in government are recent and rare developments, and many wartime leaders are in effect accountable only to themselves. Even a nation with a legal commitment to fight justly will probably lack the political will to submit to defeat when certain violations of just war standards would bring victory or save the lives of their own soldiers.

In the American mythos, for example, the Second World War is often thought of as “The Good War”, a reassuring example of the virtue of the nation and its “greatest generation” of soldiers and citizens. It is obvious, however, that the unjust provisions of the Treaty of Versailles sowed the seeds of World War II. Though the Allies had opportunities to preclude further Nazi aggression by the discriminate use of force in the 1930s, they did not do so. The Allies did, however, intentionally destroy many large civilian population centres in Germany and Japan, which killed untold numbers of noncombatants. These actions were taken for the sake of winning the war and preserving the lives of their own countrymen. Victory was also achieved through an alliance with Stalin's Soviet Union, which then imposed its oppressive hegemony over millions of Eastern Europeans. The very outcome of this war set the stage for the Cold War, which threatened the planet with nuclear annihilation and gave rise to wars between client states in Korea, Vietnam and other nations around the world.

The Allied victory surely produced more favourable results for humanity than an Axis victory would have done. All involved in the war had, however, at least some blood on their hands and endured at least some damage to their souls. The circumstances surrounding the conflict do not remove the destructive spiritual effects of the actions taken by both sides. This statement does not affirm moral equivalency between the actions of the Allies and the Axis powers during the war. It does, however, indicate that spiritual brokenness is an evitable characteristic of warfare, which by its very nature falls short of the selfless, non-resistant love of Jesus Christ. The often shattered lives of military veterans and of civilians on all sides of war bear witness to the tragic effects of armed conflict on those created in the divine image and likeness. Violent death and dismemberment, displacement from one's homeland, and torture certainly do not embody God's salvific intentions for humanity.

Orthodox Christianity is not concerned fundamentally with morality as an end in itself. The vocation of humanity is for deification, participation in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Human beings are to become by grace all that God is by nature. A common image for theosis is an iron left in a fire until it takes on the qualities of the fire. It then glows red hot and transmits heat to anything that it touches. Likewise, human beings are called to shine with the light and life of God, to participate fully in the healing and fulfillment that the incarnate Son of God has brought to the world. All are called to embrace and be transformed by the holiness of God, to become saints.7

In this light, it is not hard to see why warfare, and any taking of human life, is fraught with spiritual peril. Death comes into the world as the result of sin. Christ has come to conquer death, to raise humanity to the eternal life for which humanity was created. To kill a human being is to do the work of death, to involve oneself in a paradigmatic act of spiritual brokenness and of estrangement from God and neighbour. Granted, some instances of killing may be tragically necessary, such as the actions of a soldier in defending his or her nation from invasion by a conquering power. Killing in such circumstances may be understood in light of the Orthodox category of “involuntary sin”, which includes actions that damage the soul despite the fact that they are done without malice and out of necessity. The church knows that killing does not have to be murder for it to be spiritually damaging.8

Repentance is understood therapeutically in Orthodoxy. The focus is not on paying a legal penalty for one's sins, but instead on finding healing by reorienting one's life towards God. The soldier who has killed in war needs repentance not because of breaking a law, but because taking life presents many profound challenges to spiritual health. It is obviously difficult to grow in holiness while killing people, regardless of the circumstances.

The prayers for peace before the Our Father in the Divine Liturgy provide a stark contrast to the practices and attitudes associated with physical violence. At this point in the service, the church prays that “the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless” and that “we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance”. A day during which one has killed others who bear the image of God is hardly perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless. Those engaged in or preparing for war will find it hard to complete the course of their lives in peace and repentance. Though particular instances of warfare may be necessary, and even legally and morally justified by certain standards, they fall well short of the vision of a holy life described in these prayers.

Orthodox Christians have often failed to proclaim the severe tension between the use of violence and a life of holiness. Serbia, however, provides a recent example of the church opposing the abuse of the faith in support of war. In the midst of the Bosnian civil war, Patriarch Pavle proclaimed that “the Church must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.” The Serbian bishops declared that “The way of nonviolence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God.” They also added the following petition to the Liturgy: “For all those who commit injustice against their neighbours, whether by causing sorrow to orphans, spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and their hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even toward their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.”9

The canons of the church are applied pastorally to repair the damage done by sinful actions. Soldiers, police officers and others may at times have no choice but to use violence to defend the innocent from abuse. Their roles and responsibilities preclude them from a straightforward manifestation of Christ's nonresistant love for the enemy. They serve to protect the innocent from harm, and risk their own spiritual brokenness for the sake of others. Despite their “involuntary sin”, it is still possible for them to advance toward theosis by using force in as limited and just a manner as possible, while doing what is possible to guard themselves against the damaging effects of the passions that are often aroused in situations of violence. Passions are disordered attachments of the soul that tempt people to sinful actions. Hatred is a passion often aroused during war, for it is hard to kill without a hatred that dehumanizes the enemy. When human beings “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”, a great many passions are unleashed that often lead to the abuse and slaughter of innocents. Alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide are not uncommon symptoms of the ruin that such passions may wreak upon the lives of those who have shed blood.

Nonetheless, it is possible for a soldier to fight these passions successfully and to grow in holiness, even becoming a saint. According to the Passion of St Edmund, the king of East Anglia gave his life sacrificially in the ninth century at the hands of the invading Danish king in order to save his subjects from death. St Edmund “declared that he would follow the example of Christ and ‘refrain from staining my pure hands.’” The 11th-century Serb St John Vladimir gave his sword to a Bulgarian enemy and said, “Take it and kill me, for I am ready to die, as were Isaac and Abel”; a “perfect, non-violent, Christ-like quality” shines through his death, even though St John had previously fought as a brave solider.10 Also in the 11th century, Boris and Gleb of Kiev did not resist death at the hands of their ambitious royal brother's assassins. As Fr Alexander Webster comments, “St Boris offered himself as a voluntary, Christ-like sacrifice for the sins of the assassins and consequently made no attempt to resist the lethal violence visited upon his person.” A seasoned soldier, St Boris took “a conscious choice … to reflect the ideals of nonresistance and expiatory sacrifice modeled originally by Christ.” These saints are shining examples of “the moral life in Christ. Theirs was pre-eminently a witness on behalf of the redemptive value of innocent suffering and the transformative power of nonresistance to evil.”11

Orthodoxy does not canonize saints simply on the basis of military prowess or the fact that one died in battle, even for an Orthodox nation or in defense of the faith. St Basil's Canon 13, which excludes from communion for three years those who have killed in war, demonstrates the church's repudiation of holy wars or crusades. Patriarch Polyeuktos appealed to this canon to reject an imperial appeal in the 10th century to canonize as saints the Byzantine soldiers who died defending the Empire.12 This example is an indication that the shedding of blood calls for repentance, not for an automatic recognition of holiness.

In Orthodox moral theology, one simply does not find theoretical justification for war as good endeavour, let alone pronouncements that war is holy. Orthodoxy does not require nonviolence or pacifism as essential characteristics of the Christian life; neither, however, does it sacralize war. Instead, the church merely tolerates war as a sometimes tragically necessary or unavoidable endeavour for which repentance for “involuntary sin” is appropriate. The soldier is not condemned as a murderer, but should receive pastoral guidance towards the end of healing from the damaging spiritual effects of taking life.

The apparent ambiguity of Orthodox teaching and practice on this issue reflects the dynamics of Orthodox canon law. Through oeconomia, canons are applied pastorally in order to help particular people find spiritual healing and advance in holiness. Even as a physician takes into account the given challenges to physical health faced by a patient, the church takes into account the spiritual, moral, social and practical dynamics encountered by penitents. The peace of Christ – and the non-resistant, forgiving love by which Christ brought salvation to the world – remains the norm of the Christian life. Unfortunately, the peace of the world as we know it inevitably relies on imperfect arrangements of political, social, economic and military power, which both reflect and contribute to the brokenness of human souls and communities. The lives and well-being of those created in the image and likeness of God depend upon the institutions of human society operating with a measure of justice; otherwise, the powerful will mercilessly exploit and abuse the weak. The church does not simply condemn these realities or ask Christians to pretend that they do not live in the world as we know it. Instead, Orthodoxy calls everyone to work toward peace, reconciliation and justice for their neighbours. When doing so requires involvement in warfare, the taking of human life, or other endeavours that damage the soul, the church provides spiritual therapy for healing and guidance for growth in holiness.

The Divine Liturgy itself reflects the legitimate role of governmental and military power in our world. At the very high point of the Liturgy, in the Anaphora of St Basil the Great, the priest prays for God to “be mindful … of all civil authorities and of our armed forces; grant them a secure and lasting peace … that we in their tranquility may lead a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness.” Immediately following are similar appeals for God to “be mindful” of the victims of violence and oppression: “those who are under judgment, in the mines, in exile, in bitter servitude, in every tribulation, necessity and danger …”

These petitions indicate that the church itself benefits from a stable and just social order that enables the Christian community to live in peace. Of course, the church has endured with remarkable faithfulness terrible periods of persecution from wicked governments; nonetheless, “a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness” is preferable to all-consuming strife that inflames passions, tempts people to apostasy, and makes the demands of communal survival so pressing that evangelism and other ministries suffer greatly. It is surely at least in part through just and peaceable social orders that God is mindful of prisoners, exiles, refugees, victims of crime, and other displaced and marginalized persons. The social and political orders within which the church ministers, and within which human beings live, have great spiritual and moral significance; indeed, they serve God's purposes for the sustenance of human life. Strong temptations lurk within these orders, but they are not intrinsically evil and Christians may serve within them.

Orthodox Christianity is not a form of Gnosticism. The church affirms the essential goodness of all dimensions of creation, including the embodied social existence of humanity. Salvation is not a matter of escaping the limits of the creaturely world or pretending that suffering in the flesh and in society is not real. The Son of God became incarnate to heal fallen humanity, died on a cross, was buried in a tomb, descended to Hades, and then rose again as a completed, glorified person – as the Victor over death. The Christian hope for salvation includes the resurrection of the body, a new heaven and earth, and the fulfilment of all dimensions of creation in the eschatological kingdom of God, which has not yet come in its fullness. In our life “between the times” of the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom, the imperfect peace of the kingdoms of this world plays a vital role in God's providential care for the collective life of humanity and the flourishing of the church. As Orthodox Christians pursue a dynamic praxis of peace, they do well not to downplay the significance of real-life struggles for justice and peace faced by nations and societies in the name of an abstract spirituality. To relegate God's blessings and requirements to an ethereal realm unrelated to the present conditions of life on earth is to fall prey to the ancient Gnostic and Manichaean tendencies to condemn creation as evil. This attitude views the collective life of humanity as profane, possessing only a negative spiritual significance.

Orthodoxy, in contrast, views all dimensions of creation eucharistically. The offering of the Divine Liturgy is the paradigm for human life in the world as we fulfill our vocation as the priests of creation.13 Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ through which the church participates already in the heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God. Communicants are then to live the Eucharist by offering all aspects of their lives to the Father in union with the sacrifice of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Such a life should be characterized by peacemaking, forgiveness and reconciliation; a non-violent approach surely provides the most straightforward witness to the life of kingdom as revealed in Jesus Christ.14 Nonetheless, the process of theosis is dynamic and open to everyone in all walks of life and vocations; hence, the soldier, the police officer and others involved in the use of deadly force for the protection of the innocent may grow in holiness and find salvation. They do not fight holy wars and will not become saints simply due to their success in killing enemies. Indeed, their participation in violence will probably produce a variety of obstacles for their faithful pursuit of the Christian life. They will need the spiritual therapies of the church in order to find healing for their souls from the harms they have suffered. But as the many saints from military backgrounds indicate, it is possible for them to overcome the damaging effects of bloodshed and to embody the holiness of God. Fr John McGuckin notes that “most of the soldier saints … went voluntarily to their deaths, as passion-bearers, or martyrs; and some of them were actually martyred for refusing to obey their military superiors”.15 Those who returned home as “righteous vindicators” did so because they conquered not only a worldly enemy, but also “the very chaos and wickedness” of warfare and bloodshed.16

In conclusion, Orthodoxy's distinctive stance on peace, war and violence does not view war as unambiguously good or holy. Orthodoxy has neither a crusade ethic nor an explicit just war theory. Instead, the church tolerates war as an inevitable, tragic necessity for the protection of the innocent and the vindication of justice. The canons of the church suggest a period of repentance for those who have killed in war, which indicates both that taking life is spiritually damaging and that bloodshed falls short of Christ's normative way of non-resistant, non-violent love. Peacemaking is the common vocation of all Christians, but the pursuit of peace in a corrupt world at times inevitably requires the use of force. In such circumstances, the church provides spiritual therapy for healing from the damaging effects of taking life. In every Divine Liturgy, the church prays for the peace of the world and all its inhabitants, and participates in the heavenly banquet of the kingdom to which all – soldier and pacifist alike – are invited.


1See the statement “Called to Be ‘Craftsmen of Peace and Justice’”, Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Consultation Towards the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, Leros, Greece, 15–22 September 2009: (Accessed 09.12.10). The Saidnaya conference produced “An Orthodox Contribution Toward a Theology of Just Peace.” The present author was an editor of and contributor to these statements; hence, points of similarity in thought and wording should not surprise the reader.

2An important resource for Orthodox perspectives on peacemaking is the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship:

3Marian Gh. Simeon, “Seven Factors of Ambivalence in Defining a Just War Theory in Eastern Christianity” in Proceedings: The 32ndAnnual Congress of the American Romanian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Polytechnic International Press, Montreal, 2008, p. 537, comments that “Christian theologians generally agree that the Orthodox Church does not share a Just War Theory in the Western sense …”. See also Olivier Clement, “The Orthodox Church and Peace – Some Reflections” in H. Boss and J. Forest, For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, Syndesmos, Bialystok, 1999, p. 173; Fr Stanley S. Harakas, “The Teaching on Peace in the Fathers” in For the Peace from Above, p. 190–91; Fr John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2008, pp. 402–08; Grant White, “Orthodox Christian Positions on War and Peace” in Segma Asfaw, Guillermo Kerber, and Peter Weiderud, The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 2005, p. 38; and Fr Philip LeMasters, “May Christians Kill?” in The Goodness of God's Creation, Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA, 2008, p. 69ff.

4See St Basil the Great, Canon 13 of the 92 Canonical Epistles, as quoted in Fr John McGuckin, “St Basil's Guidance on War and Repentance” in In Communion (Winter 2006:2); Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1994, p. 86–88; “Canons of St Basil the Great” in For the Peace from Above, p. 45; Fr Alexander F. C. Webster, The Pacifist Option, International Scholars Publications, Lanham, MD, 1998,pp. 84–87.

5Henry A. Buchanan, letter to the editor, Abilene Reporter-News, June 15, 2010, p. 5C.

6Fr John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. 402.

7See, for example, St Gregory Palamas: The Triads, Fr John Meyendorff (ed) Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1983, p. 83; Bishop Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, New York, 1997, p. 231ff.

8H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr, The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, Swets & Zietlinger Publishers, Lisse, 2000, pp. 325–26.

9Jim Forest, “The Serbian Orthodox Church: Not What We have Been Led to Believe.” (Accessed 09/12/10).

10Fr Alexander F. C. Webster, The Pacifist Option, p. 189–91.

11Fr Alexander F. C. Webster, The Pacifist Option, p. 191–95.

12Fr John Erickson, “An Orthodox Peace Witness?” in Jeffrey Gros and John D. Rempel. Fragmentation of the Church and Its Unity in Peacemaking, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001,p. 48ff.

13See Fr Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1998.

14His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, Doubleday, New York, 2008), pp. 207, 227, stresses the centrality of the pursuit of peace to the Christian life.

15Fr. John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. 402.

16Fr. John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. 402.

The Reverend Dr Philip LeMasters is Dean of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University, Abilene, Texas. He is the priest of Saint Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church in Abilene, and a member of the Society of Christian Ethics, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and the Board of Trustees at Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. His publications address applied issues in Orthodox moral theology, including sexuality, marriage, environmental stewardship, poverty, and peacemaking.