St. Cyril the Peacemaker

St. Cyril, after whom the Cyrillic alphabet is named, is a peacemaker saint who is cited as a supporter of war. The catechism of the Moscow Patriarchate includes this passage, reprinted from the Bases of the Social Concept document,

St. Cyril the Peacemaker
St. Cyril the Peacemaker

When St. Cyril Equal-to-the-Apostles was sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to preach the gospel among the Saracens, in their capital city he had to enter into a dispute about faith with Muhamaddan scholars. Among others, they asked him: «Your God is Christ. He commanded you to pray for enemies, to do good to those who hate and persecute you and to offer the other cheek to those who hit you, but what do you actually do? If anyone offends you, you sharpen your sword and go into battle and kill. Why do you not obey your Christ?» Having heard this, St. Cyril asked his fellow-polemists: «If there are two commandments written in one law, who will be its best respecter — the one who obeys only one commandment or the one who obeys both?» When the Hagerenes said that the best respecter of law is the one who obeys both commandments, the holy preacher continued: «Christ is our God Who ordered us to pray for our offenders and to do good to them. He also said that no one of us can show greater love in life than he who gives his life for his friends (Jn. 15:3). That is why we generously endure offences caused us as private people. But in company we defend one another and give our lives in battle for our neighbours, so that you, having taken our fellows prisoners, could not imprison their souls together with their bodies by forcing them into renouncing their faith and into godless deeds. Our Christ-loving soldiers protect our Holy Church with arms in their hands. They safeguard the sovereign in whose sacred person they respect the image of the rule of the Heavenly King. They safeguard their land because with its fall the home authority will inevitably fall too and the evangelical faith will be shaken. These are precious pledges for which soldiers should fight to the last. And if they give their lives in battlefield, the Church will include them in the community of the holy martyrs and call them intercessors before God».

This story is often repeated, such as in the works of St. Nikolai of Zicha. However, we must recognize that there is a great deal of embellishment in this narrative (the following analysis is adapted from my more in-depth analysis of this catechetical document).

The framing, that St. Cyril went to "preach the gospel among the Saracens" implies that St. Cyril was in hostile territory as a missionary. However, other historical sources confirm that Cyril was sent on a diplomatic peacemaking mission, to engage in peace negotiations on behalf of the Roman Empire with the Abbasid Caliphate. According to one scholar, “The discussions [between Cyril and the Abbasids] took place in the course of lengthy symposia, around a table laden with provender….The Arabs cross-examined Cyril and were stunned by the extent of his knowledge…. The Byzantine mission’s visit ended with a guided tour of Samarra’s magnificent palaces and splendid gardens.” Thus, far from a combative dispute with hostile “Saracens,” Cyril’s work was as a peacemaker and diplomat among intellectuals, who were sharing in a cultural flourishing that included the translation of many works by Aristotle, Galen, Plato, and the Neoplatonists into Arabic by Christian scholars, and the work of Byzantine artists on the decoration of the new capital of Samarra.

Not only is this peacemaking mission presented as a speech justifying war, but the speech recorded in the catechism is certainly not the one St. Cyril actually gave. The ninth-century Vita Constantini—the oldest extant life of St. Cyril—records a lengthy back-and-forth between St. Cyril and the other scholars on a range of issues, but it does not record everything quoted above. Instead, St. Cyril’s reply is simply, “God said: ‘Pray for them which despitefully use you.’ And He also said: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ We do this for the sake of friends, lest their souls be captured together with their bodies.” Nowhere in this earliest version of this exchange is there the claim that soldiers are martyrs.

The context provided by the Vita and other historical sources of this peace mission suggest that the best way to interpret St. Cyril’s remarks is not as an apodictic statement on the ethics of war, as it is taken in the catechism. Rather, the Vita presents St. Cyril as engaging in rhetorical exhibition. As any reader of Plato knows, symposia traditionally involved participants at a great feast standing and giving speeches to demonstrate their rhetorical skill. These speeches need not express the true views of their speakers. Thus, when challenged with a difficult conundrum, it was expected that St. Cyril would reply with rhetorical elegance and answer the objection— which is precisely what he does. He begins with a rhetorical question, asking if it is better to fulfill one or two commandments. He then quotes the two commandments and claims that Christians fulfill both in warfare. The point of this story is not that warfare is ethical, but that St. Cyril excelled in rhetoric and dialectic, and therefore was an effective peacemaker. To have done anything less would have sabotaged the diplomatic negotiations and cultural exchange. Had St. Cyril denied Christian participation in warfare, he could have sabotaged the peace effort. It is important to acknowledge the difference which potentially exists between the rhetorical demonstration preserved in the hagiography and what might have been the considered theological statement of the historical St. Cyril.

The most problematic part of this embellished speech is the passage, “if [soldiers] give their lives in battlefield, the Church will include them in the community of the holy martyrs.” Not only is this part of the speech absent in the earliest sources, but it contradicts established church teaching. In the tenth century, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas requested that soldiers who died on the battlefield be glorified as martyrs. The Church soundly rejected this appeal, with Patriarch Polyeuktos appealing to Basil’s thirteenth Canon, which excommunicated soldiers, as demonstrating that warfare is a sin. Thus, we see that the pro-war citation of this saint relies on embellishment and misinterpretation more than reality and that the real saint behind the myth was a peacemaker on what ended up as a successful peace mission.