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Peace and War in the Eastern Orthodox Church

From the 2002 Messenger

Those who are familiar with the liturgy of the Orthodox Church will be aware that the term “peace” is used frequently in her services. Major Orthodox services all contain the “litany of peace,” which begins with the petition, “In peace, let us pray to the Lord,” and then continues, “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls . . . for the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Orthodox faithful are accustomed to repeated petitions for peace, in its personal, social, and global dimensions.

Many Christians are aware that the biblical concept of peace is rooted in the Hebrew “shalom” (Arabic “salaam”), which contains a positive conception of peace. This means that peace is not just the absence of warfare and conflict, but is an active state of harmony and well-being that applies to all relations, and especially and fundamentally, to the relationship of God and man. The Church of Jesus Christ, as the historical manifestation of the kingdom of God, embodies and fosters the dynamic aspiration to all forms of peace in the world.

Following the traditions of Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Church Fathers, the Orthodox Church teaches that peace is divinely ordained condition for human existence, and that every form of conflict and strife is a manifestation of sin. War, as the antithesis of peace, therefore belongs to the realm of human sin. Thus warfare as an activity belongs to realm of fallen human existence and can in no way embody the justice, righteousness, and indeed peace that are the very essence of the reconciliation of God and humanity.

However, when one examines the services of the Orthodox Church in greater detail, one finds other petitions that imply recognition of warfare as an activity in which God’s people are actively involved. The national armed forces are regularly commemorated, and it is asked that they be granted “victory over every enemy and adversary.” Phrases such as “grant victory to thy faithful people over the barbarians” embody historical reminiscences in which a Christian empire is actively fending off barbaric attacks. Following the precedent of Constantine the Great, the cross as seen as a potent symbol by which the enemies of faith and empire are vanquished. Even the Virgin Mary is presented as interceding in heaven and protecting the Christian commonwealth against such assaults.

Yet in spite of such seemingly pro-war sentiments, Orthodox canon law prescribes that soldiers who kill in warfare must undergo a penitential period of separation from the eucharist, which is “excommunication” in Eastern parlance. The taking of human life is always considered an objective evil, even when done in the pursuit of a “just cause.” As such, it has the effect of rupturing one’s communion with Christ and thus requires repentance.

How can these seemingly opposite emphases co-exist in the Orthodox Christian tradition? Perhaps it can be best understood by the unique applications of “akrievia” and “economia” in Orthodox ethics and canon law. “Akrievia” represents the strict application of the gospel principles embodied in canon law. “Economia” is a dispensation from this strict requirement in view of human weakness and the compromising circumstances of life in a fallen world. Perhaps divorce provides a good example. According to “akrievia,” the norm is one marriage for life, and divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery. This is a direct word of the Lord.

Nonetheless, the Orthodox Church blesses the remarriage of divorced persons in various circumstances as an act of mercy, knowing the frailties of our fallen nature and the difficult situations of life. Simultaneously, the norm is upheld and there is an accommodation to the realities of fallen world - a concept and practice that may seem contradictory to Western Christians.

Similarly, peace is the norm and goal of Christian life for all. In its very nature, it embodies the gospel of the kingdom. War by nature is a manifestation of sin, and therefore, can never be “just.” War is to be avoided at all costs, and the peaceful resolution of human conflicts is to be pursued without limitation. However, there are occasions when the peaceful resolution of conflict is in fact impossible. Such is the case when a hostile enemy attacks, and would deprive peace-loving Christian citizens of life and liberty. In such situations, a pacifistic position may indeed attract and beget violence because of its public refusal to defend even the innocent against violence and murder.

Orthodox Christians do indeed undertake warfare in such situations, but purely as a “necessary evil.” It is necessary because the innocent and good must be protected; it is evil because such protection involves the taking of human life, which by all accounts, is among the most terrible of crimes.

The Orthodox Church therefore is not pacifistic, although it in practices encourages governments always to pursue the “preferential option for peace.” Nonetheless, the Church recognizes that this world is fallen and is not yet equivalent to the kingdom of God. For this reason, governments in general cannot be held to the strict requirements of the gospel. Although under God’s authority, they belong to the fallen world. At times statesmanship fails, and Christians are called by their governments to defend their commonwealth by means of war, for to fail to do so would result in an increase in the measure of evil in the world.

This does not mean that war can be “just.” It may serve a just cause, but war itself is unjust by nature. The Orthodox Church therefore has never elaborated a theory of “just war.” For Orthodox Christians, “just war” is a contradiction in terms.

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