Not So Quiet on the Eastern Front
Orthodox Christians & the Iraqi War
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Not all Americans were in concert about the wisdom or moral character of this past spring’s invasion of Iraq, but among our country’s many religious groups it is arguable that none was more deeply divided on the subject of the Iraqi war than the Orthodox Church. In the remarks that follow, I propose to test the lines and shape of that division, persuaded that the latter serves to expose deeper conflicting impulses within Orthodoxy as this church endeavors to find its future here in the West, particularly in the United States. These differing impulses, I will argue, are not only social and historical, but also theological.
At the start, let it be clear that I plan to examine only the conflicting ways in which Orthodox Americans perceived the Iraqi war, not the moral merits of the war itself. Much less will I argue a brief for or against the war.
To be sure, the larger part of the American populace was barely aware, if at all, of this recent tension among Orthodox Christians. Not only are these but a small segment of the citizenry, they also represent a religious culture traditionally isolated to a high degree. Indeed, to the extent that Orthodox Christians in this country are noticed at all, they are most often noticed for being different, not to say strange. Standard surveys and news reports, dealing with popular religious trends and phenomena, regularly skip over the Orthodox, in order to investigate more comprehensible and less atypical religious bodies; the Mormons, say, or perhaps the Seventh Day Adventists, or various snake-handling congregations in rural Tennessee.
Then there are those whose only acquaintance with the Orthodox Church comes through such channels as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. These can hardly be blamed for dismissing Orthodoxy out of hand. In addition, Orthodox diocesan newspapers and periodicals, the chief popular sources of “Orthodox news,” are hardly known outside of their own circles. From the perspective of sociology and politics, in short, Orthodoxy in this country is still relatively marginal, so probably few Americans are aware of the deep division that recently afflicted Orthodoxy with respect to the Iraqi war.
Nonetheless, serious readers of the press and the electronic media may have noticed that the official pronouncements of the Orthodox hierarchy last winter and spring were pretty unanimous in their reservations about, and even condemnations of, our country’s projected invasion of Iraq. Those negative assessments came from very high levels of Orthodox authority, such as the patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Moscow. There were also pastoral exhortations on the subject from Orthodox bishops here in America, some of them both fervent and eloquent, all of them negative.
If those familiar with the pronouncements of the Orthodox hierarchy about the Iraqi war supposed that their negative tone was generally representative of Orthodox Christians in this country, they perhaps began to suspect otherwise on reading an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on Sunday, April 6, entitled “Stripped of Spiritual Comfort.” Its author, Frank Schaeffer, a well-known writer and commentator who is also an Orthodox Christian, bitterly complained about those same bishops, of whom he remarked, “They have dragged not only my church but Jesus into their stand against our government and war in Iraq.” In the course of the next week and more, Schaeffer, who enjoys a greater notoriety than most of the bishops he was censuring, repeated his comments on sundry television and radio talk shows.
With a Marine son deployed in the Middle East, Schaeffer had every reason to be sensitive about the matter, but he was certainly not speaking just for himself. At the very least, he voiced the concerns of the many Orthodox Christians whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends were enlisted in the military service of their country, some of them as chaplains. Assorted Orthodox diocesan journals included a few “letters to the editor” that challenged, sometimes irately, the anti-war policies of the journals and their sponsoring bishops.
We may wonder how many more such letters would have been sent, either to those journals or directly to the bishops, if local pastors (the present writer, for example) had not discouraged them, fearful of adding fuel to what might have become a firestorm. There was groaning, grumbling, and gnashing of teeth out in the nave. One heard considerable anecdotal evidence, especially in the South and Midwest, that Schaeffer spoke on behalf of many Orthodox Christians when he complained about being “excluded from my church at the very moment when I most desperately need to be included.”
Schaeffer went on to inquire, “Why have so many priests and bishops traded their call to pastoral care for a few fleeting moments of political ‘relevance’?” He finished with an impassioned plaint: “My son is gone to war. I am sad and frightened. I am also proud of my Marine for his selfless service. But I am being stripped of the comfort of my church in the name of ‘peace’ by people who seem determined to make God as small as we are.”
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship
Schaeffer especially decried an antiwar statement crafted and disseminated by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (OPF), an unofficial group of mainly lay Orthodox Christians. Conceding that the authors of that statement were “entitled to say or believe anything they want, as individuals and private citizens,” he nonetheless lamented that “so many of my bishops and priests have signed this antiwar statement in the name of my church and my God.”
Even those sympathetic to Schaeffer’s plight, however, may take issue with his assertion that “many” bishops and priests had signed the antiwar statement of the OPF. A visit to the web page of that organization (www.incommunion.org) on the very day of Schaeffer’s article revealed those signatures to be, relatively speaking, rather skimpy. Given the total number of Orthodox priests in the United States, a few score of their signatures really did not amount to much.
Furthermore, the OPF statement had been signed by only five American bishops of the Orthodox Church, including one Canadian, and not a single bishop of metropolitan rank. Now, given the considerable efforts of the OPF and its friends to garner signatures, five did not appear to be a high number of Orthodox bishops. In fact, surveying that sparse list, one was more impressed by the names that were not there. After all, far more bishops than five—probably more than twice that many—had already put themselves publicly on record as opposing the war in Iraq. It was noteworthy, then, that so many Orthodox bishops who fervently opposed the war had not seen fit to sign the anti-war statement of the OPF.
It is arguably to their credit that they did not. To some of those who followed the fortunes of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship during its short history, its statement against the war in Iraq seemed an anomaly. Even some sympathetic to the OPF, as I am, who would be neither surprised at nor concerned about that organization’s opposition to the war, found its published statement a severe disappointment.
Normally, the OPF has followed what might be called a “peaceful approach” to peace. That is to say, it advanced the cause of peace without needlessly inciting those passions and animosities that lie at the root of war. In its journal In Communion, by means of its web page, and through the extensive contacts of its leadership, it endeavored to identify conditions of injustice and oppression around the world, encouraging charitable deference and mutual understanding in situations of tension and conflict, providing a forum for the exchange of insights and interpretations, fostering both the virtue of patience and the value of prayer, and treating all matters with the godly compassion proclaimed in the gospel.
Traditionally, moreover, the OPF demonstrated an ascetical dimension, disciplined in tone, modest in aim, and circumspect in language. Even on those occasions when it directly addressed political concerns, it refrained from intruding itself into the ambiguities and complexities of the political process. As far as memory serves, the OPF never before essayed to garner signatures of support for a political statement.
The OPF’s pronouncement against the impending war in Iraq represented a distinct departure from those expected patterns. It was not simply a declaration about the perils of battle and the blessings of peace. It was, in addition, an explicit critique of American foreign policy. The section that gave the most offense included a strongly worded condemnation of this nation’s supposed war aims, alleging that the United States government was “ready to overthrow [Saddam Hussein] by any means.”
Critics of the OPF statement pointed out that its allegation, “by any means,” while it may or may not have been true, was certainly denied, repeatedly and virtually everyday, by the American government during the months leading up to the war. Every single spokesman for American foreign policy who addressed the prospect of war insisted that the United States would use conscientious restraint, especially in the choice of ordinance, precisely to avert civilian casualties as far as possible.
This was the sanctioned policy and stated pledge of the American government. The OPF’s insouciance to, and implied contempt for, that policy and that pledge, without one shred of opposing evidence, struck some Orthodox Christians, even among those who opposed the war, as an unworthy display of bias and cynicism, those very dispositions that the organization traditionally opposed and strove to avoid.
Particularly odious to some of its readers was the statement’s assertion that the projected loss of innocent life among Iraqi civilians, which it described as a “slaughter,” could “be regarded only as murder.” Murder? Isn’t murder, it seemed natural to ask, the act of a murderer? Was the OPF calling our sons and daughters murderers? Frank Schaeffer, in his op-ed piece, surely spoke for other Orthodox Christians when he wrote, “I don’t see my son as a murderer.”
In choosing the word “murder” in this context, the OPF diverged, not only from its own policy of eschewing overly dramatic and inflammatory language, but also from the precise vocabulary of moral theology. The unintentional killing of innocent civilians in the course of war has never been regarded by the Orthodox Church “only as murder.” Aside from any question of a just-war theory, even a cursory attention to the history of sacramental discipline would demonstrate this point. While there have always been ecclesiastical sanctions imposed on those who take human life in warfare (including the deliberate killing of enemy soldiers), these sanctions have never been commensurate—not even close—with the degree of penance canonically imposed on murderers.
I submit that an organization specifically devoted to pursuing peace, when making pronouncements directed to that end, should avoid unwarranted descriptions that lead to further strife. The OPF failed in this. It is no wonder that some Orthodox Christians, seeing the word “murder” used in such a context, would answer that “them’s fightin’ words.”
Instead of apologizing for an offense needlessly given, however, or at least explaining that the word “murder” was only a colorful flourish thrown in for rhetorical embellishment, the OPF chose to niggle. Jim Forest, its secretary, responding to Schaeffer on the organization’s web page, denied that the word murderer had appeared in the document to describe the American combatants in Iraq. He wrote, “It is one thing to say that killing innocent people is a grave sin—the sin of murder—and another to label those caught up in the war as murderers. We did not do so.”
But if the act in question must be called murder (“can be regarded only as murder,” said the OPF), then the agent of that act must be called a murderer. If the OPF refrained from using the word murderer to identify the agent of the act, it should not have used the word murder to identify the act. Unless the OPF deliberately intended to make enemies and alienate friends, that is to say, it should not have tried to have it both ways.
A Second Example
Forest, nonetheless, insisted on having it both ways, thereby providing a second example of the OPF’s inattention to fundamental logic. In his answer to Schaeffer, he went on to contend that in the OPF’s statement, “only Saddam Hussein was called a murderer.”
But, as a matter of fact, he wasn’t. It was obvious to readers of the OPF statement that nowhere in that document was the word murderer employed to describe Saddam Hussein. What the OPF actually said of Hussein was, “He came to office by intrigue and murder, and remains in power by the same means; he is his own country’s worst enemy.”
Now herein lay something passing curious. The OPF used exactly the same word, murder, to describe two things: the past actions of Saddam Hussein and the impending actions of the American forces in Iraq. Therefore, the OPF could not logically claim that, in speaking of Saddam’s act of “murder,” it correctly identified Saddam as a murderer, unless it also admitted that, in speaking of the acts of “murder” to be committed by American forces in Iraq, it was likewise identifying those American forces as murderers. Distinctions, after all, should really involve the act of distinguishing. Otherwise, they are only word games, and word games do not advance the cause of peace and the mutual understanding of those in conflict.
Forest, however, went on to offer an analogy that might bring timely comfort to poor Frank Schaeffer, whose Marine son, according to the OPF, was about to commit the sin of slaughter and murder. Wrote Forest: “If we had a daughter who had an abortion, my wife and I might well sympathize with her, loving her as we do and knowing that her action would not have been an easy decision. We might for a time resent the Church for being outspoken in its judgment that abortion is in fact murder.”
As far as I know, the world remains uncertain just how comforted Schaeffer was made to feel by this incredible comparison of his son to someone procuring an abortion, but it did demonstrate how far the OPF was willing to go in the indictment of “murder” against the American forces preparing for war in Iraq.
Notwithstanding its exaggeration in language and ineptitude in logic, however, I do believe that the antiwar pronouncement of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship did achieve one positive and profitable result. It provided a needed target at which to aim the annoyance and frustration that some Orthodox Christians felt about the opposition of their church leaders to the Iraqi war. The Orthodox, both clergy and laity, spontaneously respect their bishops, and most were reluctant to criticize them or challenge their position, especially in public.
An unofficial organization like the OPF, on the other hand, was considered fair game, and after Schaeffer’s article brought the OPF document to greater notoriety, criticisms of it ran all over the Internet. The closest the Orthodox in this country came to a real debate on the Iraqi war was in connection with the OPF statement.
Warriors from the West
All the usual polls indicated that last spring’s invasion of Iraq enjoyed heavy majority support in this country. However, because there were no polls of opinion on that subject, as far as I am aware, among Orthodox Christians, the actual pro and con percentages in this group must remain a matter of impressions and conjecture. It does seem safe to say, nonetheless, that the percentage of those opposed to the invasion of Iraq was higher among the Orthodox than in the American population as a whole.
At least three reasons, I believe, account for this. First, a not inconsiderable number of Orthodox Christians in the United States are from the Middle East, either directly or through their very proximate ancestry. Their forebears and current brethren have lived for more than a thousand years as a minority population within predominately Muslim cultures and under Muslim political institutions. Their entire experience as Christians is colored and contoured by that Muslim context. In various ways, as history provided, those Christians discovered the means of survival in that setting and even made their own distinct and rich contributions to its culture.
Many of them have close relatives who live in the countries of the Middle East, including Iraq itself. The idea of going to battle against Muslims, with whom they have lived peacefully for centuries, sharing a common language and much of the dominant culture, represents for these Christians an affront to their entire historical experience. In addition, a sizeable portion of these Christians are dispossessed Palestinian exiles, who understandably resent American support of Israel. These are some of the considerations, surely, that would prompt them to oppose this country’s invasion of Iraq.
Second, even those Orthodox Christians who are not from the Middle East, such as the Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, and Russians, share a distinguishing historical experience that renders them somewhat wary of Western military activity in that part of the world. Plainly put, such endeavors look too much like the Crusades. The fact that Orthodox wariness on this matter, especially its reference to the Crusades, will strike most Western Christians as improbable, bizarre, and completely off-the-wall is, I submit, a part of the larger ecumenical problem. The West little remembers the Crusades; they are distant history. In the East, however, they are a thing of barely yesterday.
The Orthodox East not only recalls the Crusades very vividly; it bothers them that Western Christians, if they recall the Crusades at all, think of them chiefly as directed against the Muslims. In fact, however, those sporadic attacks on, and brief occupation of, the Holy Land (as distinct from the Christian reconquests of Spain and Sicily) were hardly more than a nuisance to the Muslim world. Except on the coast of Syria, few Muslims perished from the crusader’s sword or even saw it. No matter how different were the original intentions of Pope Urban II and others like him, the Christians of the East were the ones, finally, who (along with the Jews) were the real victims of those invasions from the West.
And they resent it to this day. Truly, I have met few Orthodox Christians, of any nationality, for whom the crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople in 1204 was not felt to be a “personal” affront. As an Irishman obliged to look up the Great Potato Famine in the encyclopedia if I want to know something about it, I find this detailed and animated remembrance of the Crusades really quite amazing. Anyway, a great distrust of anything that even faintly resembles a Western invader heading toward the East is still very real in the Orthodox world.
Third, Orthodoxy’s disposition toward war, generally considered, is very different from certain attitudes recorded in the history of Western Christianity. Leaving aside for the moment any question of a just-war theory, the history of Western Christianity testifies to a glorification of combat that is virtually unknown in the East. Whether in the Crusades themselves, or the forced conversion of Saxons by Charlemagne, or the use of feudal power for the suppression of heresy, or the granting of indulgences to those slain in combat against infidels, or the consecration of a knight’s armor on the Eucharistic altar, or the papal authorizations for the Norman invasions of England and Ireland, or the founding of military orders that combined monasticism with combat as a consecrated way of life, Western Christianity has sometimes interpreted martial activity, not simply as an unavoidable evil but as a meritorious act, a potentially holy and sanctifying exercise.
The East has known nothing similar on this scale. Even in Procopius’s History of the Wars and those Byzantine romances, like the Digenes Acritas, that extolled the military bravery of Christian warriors, there was no effort to portray war itself as a holy pursuit. On the contrary, the ascetical ideals of Eastern Christianity constantly encourage recourse to non-aggressive ways of dealing with conflict. (I hope it is unnecessary for me to say that these remarks are intended to be only descriptive, not critical. Evaluating this particular difference between the East and the West is not to my purpose just now.)
An Orthodox Dilemma
For all that, however, there was no shortage of Orthodox Christians in this country who, in varying degrees, favored the American intervention in Iraq, and they did so for much the same reasons that most other Americans favored it. Indeed, they used the same categories to describe it: self-defense against a threatening aggressor, the liberation of an oppressed people from a horrible tyrant, the overthrow of a rogue regime that was fostering terrorism elsewhere in the Middle East, the extension of free government and its economic prosperity to another nation, and so on. That is to say, the Orthodox who favored going to war did so for the same reasons as other American citizens.
These Orthodox Christians, faced with a prudential decision regarding a matter of geopolitics, preferred to trust their government rather than their bishops. Thus they supported President Bush in his determination that war was the correct procedure for dealing with a serious problem in Iraq, and they bolstered that determination not only by words but also by giving their sons and daughters to its service. In Orthodox churches all over this country, prayers were offered daily, not only for peace but also for victory.
On the other hand, the widespread Orthodox opposition to the Iraqi war, particularly by the bishops, was a source of discouragement, even dilemma, for some Orthodox Christians, especially when that opposition was accompanied, as it frequently was, by the comment that “the Orthodox Church does not accept or espouse a just-war theory; all wars are evil, and participation in them is necessarily and intrinsically evil.” This judgment, voiced by some of the names most respected in Orthodox moral theology, was a cause of bewilderment because, if true, it appeared to guarantee that the Orthodox Church, committed to an ethics of pacifism, would remain forever on the fringes of American life, along with other pacifist groups, like the Amish.
This was not a danger to which the Roman Catholic Church, with its robust and traditional theory of just war, was subject. The American bishops of that church could denounce the Iraqi war with complete safety on the point, because everyone knew that Roman Catholicism was not committed to a philosophy of pacifism. (One recalls that old-style Catholic pacifists, like Thomas Merton, were forever lamenting this fact.) Official Roman Catholic criticism of the Iraqi war, consequently, was consistently based on the argument that that projected war did not measure up to the traditional criteria for determining a “just war.” No Roman Catholic bishop this past year suggested that there could be no such thing as a just war.
The bishops of the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, were much less clear on this point, and their exhortations rather often conveyed the impression that, because war is evil, it is always sinful to go to war. They may not always have said this in so many words, but the impression was popularly conveyed (and clearly promoted by the OPF). Many Orthodox Christians began to wonder, therefore, if their own church, thus committed to a pacifist ethic so out of step with American history (if not incompatible with American patriotism), could ever hope to be more than a fringe religion in this country.
The American Moment?
A good number of American citizens, including not a few who are neither committed globalists nor disciples of Leo Strauss, believe that the Lord of history has laid on the United States of America, now and for the foreseeable future, a unique charge with respect to the preservation of world stability and the well-being of mankind. They don’t believe that America chose this honor for itself. They have the impression, rather, that in many respects the United States was coerced into this international duty by reason of having decently intervened on behalf of friends, selflessly but with great reluctance, in wars that were not of its own making.
Their point is almost perfectly illustrated with respect to the cynical way some of the opponents of the Iraqi war kept repeating that it was “all about oil.” Well, suppose for a moment that the war was “all about oil.” What, exactly, is wrong with that? The economic well-being of the human race right now is inseparable from the steady flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, for the domestic, industrial, and commercial maintenance of the wealth that keeps people alive.
Seriously impede that flow of oil, and the modest farmer in India or Bolivia has no energy for the little pump that irrigates his crops, homes on five continents will not be heated, the price of food will rise to prohibitive levels in every major city in every country, people will starve and freeze to death all over the world. While we hope that this need for oil will not always exist, it will surely exist for some time to come.
So then, for the sake of argument, let it be “all about oil.” If a large rogue nation in the Persian Gulf, menacing its neighbors, seriously endangers the world’s access to petroleum, somebody in this world has a moral and humanitarian responsibility to deal with the problem. While it is not equally certain to everybody that this responsibility belongs in a special way to the United States, there are enough Americans who believe it does and, in consequence, judge themselves conscientiously obliged to exercise that responsibility. This past spring those folks constituted a solid majority, without which President Bush would have had a very hard time exercising the national will in Iraq.
Now it happens that some Orthodox Christians agree with those of their fellow citizens who are convinced that this historical duty laid on our country is both sternly serious and transcendently moral in nature, and they disagree with the others who see in it only a symptom of American “unilateralism” and hubris. They are also persuaded that the exercise of this moral responsibility may occasionally require recourse to arms, not simply to defend our shores from invaders, but also to maintain some measure of geopolitical stability against the designs of rogue nations and barbarous organizations.
Whether or not they are correct in that persuasion is irrelevant here. For the purpose of my point, it is sufficient to recognize that they do in fact adhere to that persuasion by a most stern dictate of conscience and are resolved to act on it.
Here, then, was the dilemma posed to those Orthodox Christians that were thinking such thoughts: If the Lord of history had indeed laid such responsibility on this nation, and if occasional recourse to arms was required to meet that responsibility, then a pacifist ethic could not be a central and major guiding theory of American life. At worst, such pacifism would represent a dismal moral failure. At most, it might be a voice in the wilderness, a prophetic uneasiness, placed off to the side and well out of sight (much like monasticism in this respect), to keep reminding the rest of us, even in the midst of our duty to the world, that sic transit gloria mundi. In either case, a religion committed to a pacifist ethic could not be a central feature of American political and social life.
During this past winter and spring, therefore, it seemed to those Orthodox Christians that their spiritual leaders, who had for decades been exhorting them to get out there and “make America Orthodox,” were implicitly retreating from that exhortation. Orthodox opposition to the Iraqi war, especially when expressed in pacifist terms, seemed to be telling Orthodox Christians to disassociate themselves from what their own consciences held to be the correct moral decision in the nation’s hour of crisis. They feared that, if their church was truly committed to pacifism as an ethical philosophy, then serious Orthodox evangelism in the United States would no longer be a realistic endeavor. They were bewildered, furthermore, that the Orthodox leadership seemed unaware of this contradiction.
Once again, I do not argue that these Orthodox Christians were correct in their assessment of such matters. That question is immaterial and beside the point. I only endeavor to explain why they perceived themselves to be facing a dilemma in their own church at a morally critical moment when the identity, resolve, and destiny of this republic were about to be tried.
A Model from Tradition
How should that dilemma be answered? After all, if a pacifist ethic really is an integral part of “the faith once delivered to the saints,” then its apparent irrelevance to American foreign policy is no argument against it. If the dominical mandate to “turn the other cheek” is applicable to nations and individuals equally, then that equal application settles the question of war or peace. In that case, the commitment to the Orthodox faith necessarily implies a commitment to a pacifist ethic.
But does that thesis, in fact, represent the teaching of the Orthodox Church? There are sound reasons for doubting it.
First, after the Edict of Milan in 312, when Christians became an active part of the political processes of the Roman Empire, the right of Christians to fight was regarded as part of the nation’s right to defend itself. It is not and it has never been the teaching of the Orthodox Church that the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to nations and peoples in exactly the same way that it is addressed to individual Christians. Thus, with the new political responsibilities necessarily imposed on Christians at the coming of Constantine, the Church, acknowledging the legitimacy of warfare for the common defense, was obliged to recognize as legitimate also the profession of the soldier. Although one may cite this or that author at the time who disagreed with that recognition, it was the general teaching of the Christian Church.
Second, the common defense, in the Constantinian context, meant the protection of an empire. That is to say, the common defense implied more than the preservation of this or that local people. It meant also the maintenance of an international order. This is why there were Byzantine Christian troops fighting in Carthage in the sixth century, and in Hungary in the eleventh, and so on.
Now, the religion of that Roman Empire of the East (commonly called the Byzantine Empire) was the Orthodox Christian religion. It was manifestly not pacifist. Truly, it passes belief how someone could imagine that that empire, the longest enduring in the history of the world, felt obliged, by its adherence to the Orthodox Christian faith, to pursue a pacifist ethic. If so, it would have disappeared long before 1453.
This is not to say that there were no Christians professing pacifism during the period between 312 and 1453. There were, and they enjoyed the freedom to do so because other Christians took up the sword to protect them.
Many Orthodox theologians, recognizing the historical fact that thousands of Orthodox Christians have waged hundreds of battles with not the faintest word of censure spoken to them by the Church, nonetheless claim that such recourse to arms by Christian people, when it became necessary, was accepted by the Church only as the choice of a lesser evil. Indeed, this is a very common view today, and it is the reason why one often hears that “the Orthodox Church has no theory of just war.”
This view was seriously challenged by Father Alexander F. C. Webster almost at the moment the American forces were entering Baghdad. In an article entitled “Justifiable War as a ‘Lesser Good’ in Eastern Orthodox Moral Tradition,” published in this year’s first installment of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 1–57), arguably the most prestigious Orthodox theological journal in the English language, Webster examined dozens of biblical, patristic, liturgical, hagiographic, and canonical texts from Orthodox history to argue that “justice in war—both as an end and as a means to that end—may also be virtuous and hence morally good.”
Webster further contended that the contrary theory (which holds that the “just war” is unknown to Orthodoxy and that the waging of war is intrinsically evil) is traceable to the first quarter of the twentieth century and “infiltrated Orthodoxy as a result of a flurry of ecumenical contacts with Western Christians and accelerated emigration of Orthodox Christians to Western Europe and North America.” Whether or not this latter claim is valid (and the present writer is, frankly, not convinced), one could hardly fail to notice, this past spring, that some of the loudest cries raised against the American invasion of Iraq came from those Orthodox Christians most actively involved with liberal ecumenical organizations like the World Council of Churches.
Webster’s questionable ascription of the “no-just-war” theory to Orthodoxy’s ecumenical contacts, however, is no detraction from his overriding thesis, which the present writer, though not entirely convinced, is unqualified to challenge. The editors of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly nonetheless arranged for Webster to be challenged. His article, the first in a symposium on just-war theory in the Orthodox Church, received six replies from other Orthodox writers in the journal’s remaining 69 pages. Of those responses, four (one by Jim Forest) were entirely negative and upheld the view that any fighting of wars is intrinsically evil.
The remarks of the two other respondents were more nuanced. Father David Pratt, a former Navy chaplain with combat service in Somalia, remarked how often the just-war theory has been used to justify unjustifiable wars. The other, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, the executive editor of The National Interest, remarked that “the greatest danger Orthodoxy now faces is that its teachings are viewed by many to be either too archaic or too idealistic to provide effective guidance.” He urged Orthodox thinkers not to isolate their moral reflections from practical political discourse by too great an emphasis on ideals.
The present writer believes that there already exists a historical model that may serve to correct that isolation. Whether or not the Orthodox Church has ever elaborated a theory to justify war, it does seem undeniable that it has very often acted, in practice, as though there were such a theory. Over the centuries, the Orthodox Church has repeatedly blessed armies going off to battle, not only in defense of the homeland, but also for foreign wars judged to be necessary for the maintenance of international order. In its liturgical worship, including the august Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, the Orthodox Church has for centuries prayed for victory in warfare, as exemplified in that petition currently used in the Great Litany during times of war: “For our armed forces everywhere, that He will aid them and grant them victory over every enemy and adversary, let us pray to the Lord.” Victory over our enemies means killing them, doesn’t it? Does anyone imagine it means something else?
Whether or not the present world’s very limited peace, an international stability sustained in part by American arms protecting humanitarian interests in various places, is legitimately described as a pax Americana, there is no doubt that history bears witness to a thousand years of pax Romana, when Byzantine Christian soldiers, with the often enthusiastic blessing of their Church, took up arms to protect and sustain what little peace was to be had in the face of the several barbarian forces that surrounded them.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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