by Fr. Philip LeMasters
The Christian faith began in the context of political and military occupation, in a situation where violent acts, both by the oppressor and the oppressed, were common. It is in such a context that the movement begun by Jesus of Nazareth took shape. Not only did Christ teach his disciples to love their enemies, turn the other cheek and go the extra mile with them, but he also boldly spoke the truth to the religious and political leaders of Palestine, for which they crucified Him. Even though Christ’s kingdom was not of this world, conventional political rulers were threatened by his prophetic words and deeds. His ministry may be described as an act of nonviolent resistance against dominant religious, social and political ideologies in Palestine, then under occupation by the Roman Empire. This Messiah was not the Davidic warrior-king expected by many Jews – nor can he be reduced in our own day to a mere social activist.
The incarnate life of the Son of God provides a paradigmatic example of how to respond to evil with nonviolent resistance. The One who is both human and divine lived under military occupation and, precisely in that context, brought salvation to the world in a nonviolent way. Unlike the Zealots and others using violent methods, Christ embodied a more radical critique that went beyond shifting power from one group to another or reversing the roles of the victor and the vanquished. He created among his apostles, disciples, and followers an inclusive and peaceable society that brought Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, men, women, rich, poor, slave and free into the communion of his Body, the Church.
Nonviolent Resistance in the History of the Church: For the first few centuries, the Church’s life was deeply marked by the experience of persecution from the Roman Empire. Christians who would not worship the gods of Rome were considered traitors guilty of “hatred of the human race” for not fulfilling their civic obligation of serving the deities who were thought to guarantee the well-being of the Empire. We know the stories of these martyrs and continue to honor them for their steadfast commitment to Christ in the face of torture, mutilation and execution.
Some Christians served in the Roman army before the conversion of Constantine, including such martyrs as Saints George, Demetrius and Theodore the General. They refused to obey the commands of their military superiors and thus undertook nonviolent resistance to the dominant religious and political ideologies of the Empire. Like Christ, they suffered violence at the hands of the state for their refusal to place service to a worldly kingdom over obedience to the kingdom of heaven. As St. Peter said when forbidden to preach, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” The martyrs’ refusal to worship false gods, Olivier Clément commented, “does not express itself through rebellion but through martyrdom ... through a nonviolent stance, which has remained characteristic of the Christian East to this day.”
Examples of nonviolent resistance to evil do not cease with the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Saint Athanasius’ struggles against Arianism resulted in successive exiles, while Saint John Chrysostom’s denunciation of imperial abuses led to his death. Saint Maximus the Confessor endured mutilation for his opposition to the Monothelite heresy, and the iconoclastic controversy also produced martyrs and confessors. These are only a few well-known examples of nonviolent resistance in the Byzantine Empire to both political and religious authority.
The first two saints of Kievian Rus’, Boris and Gleb, chose not to defend themselves against the assassins sent by their brother and rival for the throne. In The Pacifist Option, Fr. Alexander Webster notes that they died “not for the true faith in Christ, as was customary in the early Church and in the rest of the Orthodox world, but rather for the moral life in Christ. Theirs was preeminently a witness on behalf of the redemptive value of innocent suffering and the transformative power of nonresistance to evil.”
During the Ottoman period, simply to profess the Orthodox faith was a form of nonviolent resistance to the dominant ideology and entailed a second-class existence within set religious, social, political and economic boundaries. The limits of Ottoman toleration were evident in the example of the new martyrs who refused to embrace Islam and were killed for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
Nonviolent Resistance in the Twentieth Century: In 1905, over 100,000 people marched in the streets of St. Petersburg under the leadership of an Orthodox priest – some carrying icons – to protest their miserable circumstances and to beg the help of Czar Nicholas. Their petition stated: “Oh Sire, we working men and inhabitants of St. Petersburg, our wives, our children and our parents, helpless and aged women and men, have come to You our ruler, in search of justice and protection. We are beggars, we are oppressed and overburdened with work, we are insulted, we are not looked on as human beings but as slaves. The moment has come for us when death would be better than the prolongation of our intolerable sufferings. We are seeking here our last salvation.... Destroy the wall between yourself and your people.” Tragically, with the czar’s permission, soldiers fired on the crowd, killing and wounding hundreds in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Like Boris and Gleb, those who perished were not killed because of their faith; they did, however, respond nonviolently to injustice and lost their lives as a result.
During the decades of Communist rule, innumerable martyrs and confessors undertook nonviolent resistance by rejecting atheistic ideology and refusing to abandon or hide the faith, enduring poverty, imprisonment, exile, torture and execution in ways that mirrored the witness of the Church in pagan Rome. Opposing civil war in Russia following the Bolshevik coup, Patriarch Tikhon refused to bless the White armies and instead appealed to the laity for nonviolent resistance. “This was the time,” wrote Olivier Clément, “when Starets [Elder] Alexis Metchev opposed the calls for an anti-Bolshevik crusade made by some émigré bishops and declared that a powerful spiritual renewal was the only way in which Russia would be able to overcome anti-theism.” Many martyrs died praying for their tormentors.
Less well known is the nonviolent resistance of Saints Dimitri Klépinin and Mother Maria Skobtsova and other members of “Orthodox Action” who aided Jews during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. They violated various unjust laws in order to save the lives of innocent people and themselves died in concentration camps as a result. Mother Maria wrote of Hitler as a “madman ...who ought to be confined to a madhouse” and tore down posters urging Frenchmen to work in German factories. She spoke forthrightly of the incompatibility of Christianity and Nazi ideology even to persons who were likely Nazi agents. When thousands of Jews were held in an athletic stadium July of 1942, she managed to enter the stadium, providing what comfort she could to the captives and, with the aid of garbage collectors, rescued a number of children. “If the Germans come looking for Jews [in our house],” she said once, “I’ll show them the icon of the Mother of God.” She, Fr. Dimitri and two co-workers died in concentration camps. They were canonized in 2004.
In the same period another example of nonviolent resistance is provided by an Orthodox layman, Alexander Schmorell, co-founder of “the White Rose,” a student group which distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Germany in 1942-43. One White Rose leaflet stated that “The only available [means of opposition] is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism.” Another leaflet contained the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust as well as criticism of the apathy of citizens “for allowing such crimes to be committed by ‘these criminal fascists’.” Schmorell, having served as a medic on the Eastern Front, had resolved never to kill an enemy. He went to his execution peacefully and stated that “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary … to put me on the right road and therefore was no misfortune at all.” Before his execution, Schmorell said that “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.” Archbishop Mark of Berlin has announced his intention to canonize Schmorell. (For more information, see Jim Forest’s article “Alexander Schmorell and the White Rose” in issue 59 of In Communion. )
Though this brief survey of Orthodox nonresistance is neither comprehensive nor systematic, the examples cited demonstrate that nonviolent resistance has been present in the Church from its earliest days until the present. Martyrs and confessors, both ancient and contemporary, have disobeyed laws and other directives that they discerned to be contrary to their faith and conscience. Some have done so when governments commanded them to commit idolatry or embrace heresy. Others have refused to obey unjust laws by protecting the innocent or calling for social and political change, rejecting passivity or submission in the face of evil. These are examples of deliberate acts of resistance and of refusal to allow corrupt worldly powers to control the conscience and actions of Christians.
Nonviolent Resistance and Contemporary Political Action: These examples do not present nonviolent resistance as a merely prudential tactic to achieve a political goal that might also be accomplished by violent means. Instead, these types of nonviolent action grow from the heart of the Christian faith: the selfless, suffering, forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ whereby we are reconciled to Him and to one another, even our enemies. Christ spoke and acted prophetically, denouncing evil and challenging social and religious structures that were contrary to God’s will for human beings. Orthodox nonviolent resistance to evil follows Christ’s example.
The martyrs and saints are not motivated by political efficacy but, as Fr. Alexander Webster comments, by “a distinctive Orthodox mode of pacifism” that resists “evil of a strictly demonic origin.” Indeed, the martyrs and confessors we have cited did not criticize social orders, promote change or refuse to obey unjust laws simply due to a conventional political agenda or a desire for power. At the same time, nonviolent resistance to evil inevitably occurs in given social and political contexts where moral and spiritual values have been corrupted in particular ways. When Christians speak the truth about these corruptions and refuse to cooperate with or endorse them, they denounce evil and call prophetically for a new set of circumstances that more closely embodies God’s purposes for human beings. Indeed, they have a responsibility to do so, even to the point of civil disobedience. As Fr. Stanley Harakas noted in Living the Faith:
Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King
In cases of particularly harmful laws, the Christian has the responsibility of disobedience. Historically, some injustices that have attacked the Christian identity itself have not been tolerated. The example of the early Christian refusal to worship the Emperors led to civil disobedience and martyrdom for thousands of Christians. There is a line between the advisability of bearing injustices and the duty of refusing to do so. Circumstances must be considered in each case. Both the Christian as an individual and the Church as a whole need to be ever ready to make the decision and accept the consequences when civil disobedience is the correct Christian action.
All members of the Church are called to participate in economic, social, political and cultural life in ways that reflect a Christian vision of human relations and community before God. Consequently, Orthodox may well take part in nonviolent marches or demonstrations protesting evils – racism, genocide, environmental degradation, militarism – that are clearly contrary to God’s will. Archbishop Iakovos, leader of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America, set an example when he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma, Alabama. A photograph of the Archbishop, Dr. King, and the labor leader Walter Reuther was on the cover photograph of Life magazine on March 26, 1965.
In 1997, in the Milosevic period, Patriarch Pavle of Serbia led an anti-government march, preventing a police attack on protesting students. He had earlier appealed to the authorities for the release of political prisoners.
Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America recently led a delegation from “Orthodox Christians for Life” in the “March for Life” in Washington, D. C., a rally to protest the acceptance of abortion in American society.
Nonviolent Resistance in Palestine: Another example of nonviolent resistance is found in the work of the Holy Land Trust, which “seeks to strengthen and empower the Palestinian community in developing spiritual, pragmatic and strategic approaches that will allow it to resist all forms of oppression and build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model and pillar of understanding, respect, justice, equality and peaceful coexistence.” One of the participants is Archbishop Theodosius Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a well-known opponent of the Israeli occupation and an outspoken advocate of the unification of the Palestinian people.
There has also been Orthodox involvement in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, an ecumenical project that provides an international nonviolent presence, offering a degree of greater protection to people under military occupation through reporting and monitoring, for example at military checkpoints, while providing solidarity with people struggling against the Israeli occupation.
In situations where the very existence of the Christian community is under attack, as in Palestine, simply to maintain the life of the Church is a form of nonviolent resistance to the intentions of the occupying power. For example, Dr. Maria Khoury describes the witness of Orthodox Palestinians in the village of Taybeh as a peaceable presence in stark contrast to the ongoing war between Israelis and Muslims: “We Palestinian Christians don’t believe in the violent struggle and we don’t believe in suicide bombings, but because we live the same frustrating life – our human dignity is violated every single day – we understand why this leads people to violence. Nevertheless, as Christians we have to be above these natural responses, and this is why our presence is so important.”
Dr. Khoury draws attention to nonviolent protests against the wall around Bethlehem “that has taken so much of the [Palestinians’] farmland and denies the farmers access to their own fields,” as well as protests against illegal Israeli settlements. Nonviolent resistance has often had a heavy cost for Palestinian Christians. For example, when the largely Christian town of Beit Sahour refused to pay taxes in 1989 to protest their lack of political representation, the Israeli military authority blocked food shipments for 42 days, cut phone lines, barred reporters and leveled over 350 homes, seizing millions of dollars in money and property.
International Orthodox Christian Charities has sustained many projects in education, agriculture, emergency relief and economic development for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Though we rarely think of charitable efforts as types of nonviolent resistance, they certainly are in situations where they frustrate the efforts of dominant powers to destroy a community and a people.
A group of Christians under the name of Kairos Palestine declares that nonviolent resistance to injustice is a right and a duty for all Palestinians, including Christians. Kairos Palestine has been blessed by Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and the hierarchs of Armenian, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and other churches. Palestinian Christians are called to see in their enemies the image of God as they enact “active resistance to stop the injustice and oblige the perpetrator to end his aggression” and return their “land, freedom, dignity and independence.” Such resistance opposes “evil in all its forms with methods that enter into the logic of love and draw on all energies to make peace.” Promoting civil disobedience and respect for life, the Kairos document calls for “individuals, companies and states to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation,” the purpose of which “is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice.”
Such contemporary examples of activism, and of cooperation with other religious, political and social movements, demonstrate that Orthodox nonviolent resistance is not reserved for the classic martyr or confessor who suffers for refusing to commit apostasy or heresy. Whenever Orthodox use nonviolent means to protest injustice or to work toward the creation of a social and political order more in keeping with God’s purposes for humanity, they are rightly understood to be involved in nonviolent resistance as a legitimate form of witness and action.
Theological Considerations: Olivier Clément cautions against making “nonviolence into a system” which forgets that Christ was crucified. In other words, there is an innate tension between Orthodox nonviolent resistance and the dynamics of human societies. Taking up the cross is rarely a way to achieve power and success as defined by the world. “The life of Gandhi was so fruitful precisely because of his constant willingness to lay it down, and the same was true of Martin Luther King.” In his book, On Human Being, Clément notes that
It is the Church’s business not to impose methods, even nonviolent ones, but to witness in season and out of season to the creative power of love. The problem is not one of violence or non-violence at all; and the solution, which can never be more than partial, lies in the ability to transform, as far as possible and in every circumstance of history, destructive violence into creative power. The cross which, as Berdyaev memorably said, causes the role of worldly existence to bloom afresh, here signifies not resignation, but service; not weakness, but creative activity.
“Fools for Christ” have provided some of the most creative activity in the history of the Church, and their example sheds light on the calling to nonviolent resistance. As Christos Yannaras explained in The Freedom of Morality, Holy Fools show “that salvation and sanctity cannot be reconciled with the satisfaction that comes from society’s respect and objective recognition.” They challenge “conventional standards and ideas of a world which measures the true life and virtue of man with the yardsticks of social decorum and ontology.” Their witness “manifest[s] prophetically the contrast between ‘the present age’ and the age of the Kingdom, the basic difference in standards and criteria.” Their complete abandonment of the ego enables them to accept their “own sin and fall, without differentiating it from the sin and fall of the rest of mankind” and to “transfigure this acceptance into…a life of incorruption and immortality.”
To take up the path of nonviolent resistance is usually to appear foolish and irresponsible in the eyes of the dominant culture and perhaps also of many in the Church. To suffer execution, torture, imprisonment, exile, unemployment or even a significant inconvenience in lifestyle as a result of refusing to endorse or cooperate with evil is irrational according to the dominant thinking of humanity. Pilate could not understand Christ, and the idea of a Messiah who died on a cross was simply foolishness to the Jews. To the present time, the risks to one’s safety and success associated with nonviolent resistance call for those who accept them to abandon their egos, to become fools for Christ’s sake.
In such humility, however, there is unparalleled freedom. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in The Orthodox Way, the Holy Fool “combines audacity with humility. Because he has renounced everything, he is truly free. Like the fool Nicolas of Pskov, who put into the hands of Tsar Ivan the Terrible a piece of meat dripping with blood, he can rebuke the powerful of this world with a boldness that others lack. He is the living conscience of society.” Orthodox who undertake nonviolent resistance may look to the Fools for Christ as models of the kind of dying to self that enables one to point out the imperfections and contradictions of present social orders in light of the Kingdom of God. Nonviolent activists provide an eschatological critique of the brokenness and partiality of even the best attempts to manifest social justice. And rather than making their enemies suffer, they will take upon themselves the consequences of turning the other cheek even to those who have no hesitation in using violence in order to get their way.
Such a vocation is a way of ascesis, of fighting to overcome one’s passions for self-righteous judgment and vengeance. Even in the pursuit of nonviolent resistance, there is the temptation to pride and self-righteousness – being on the side of the angels – unlike one’s opponents. Those who engage in nonviolent action require ongoing spiritual vigilance so that they will embrace their work as a selfless offering of themselves on behalf of their neighbors, and not as a monument to their own moral and spiritual purity. Resistance to evil must always begin with resistance to the evil of one’s own sins and passions, with taking up the cross and following the Lord in humility.
In Encountering the Mystery, Patriarch Bartholomew stresses the spiritual roots of nonviolent resistance, stressing that it “can never be reduced to an anxious attempt to prevent something terrible from happening to us. On the contrary, the resistance of silence can serve as a forceful ‘no’ to everything that violates peace.... Peace rests in the undoing of fear and develops on the basis of love. Unless our actions are founded on love rather than on fear, they will never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism.... Only those who know – deep inside the heart – that they are loved can be true peacemakers.” Such peacemaking is “deeply rooted in the all-embracing love of God” and makes “a radical response” that “threatens policies of violence and the politics of power” and gives “the ultimate provocation” by loving and refusing to intimidate the enemy. Through the silence of prayer and turning away from “our pride, passions, and selfish desires,” human beings become capable of participating in the “love and generosity” of Christ as they respond actively to situations of injustice. In these ways, the Ecumenical Patriarch identifies nonviolent resistance and peacemaking as practical manifestations of Orthodox theology that grow from the very heart of the faith. ❖
Fr. Philip LeMasters is priest at St. Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church, Abilene, Texas, and teaches Christian Ethics at McMurry University. He is the author of The Goodness of God's Creation (Regina Orthodox Press) and has participated in Orthodox consultations on peace ethics in Greece, Romania and Syria. This is a shortened version of a soon-to-be published paper presented in June at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece.
❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011